Congaree National Park Fireflies – Interview w/ Jon Manchester – Part 1

Love Hiking News recently interviewed Congaree National Park Chief of Visitor Services, Jon Manchester about the Congaree National Park Firefly viewing event. In Part 1 of this 3 part series, Jon discusses his background, what makes Congaree special for fireflies, and where to see the fireflies. 

Table of Contents

Jon Manchester, Chief of Visitor Services, Congaree National Park
Jon Manchester, Chief of Visitor Services, Congaree National Park

Background on Congaree National Park Fireflies and Jon Manchester

Love Hiking News: Jon, you’ve been with Congaree National Park and talking fireflies for a number of years. Can you tell me about your background and what experiences you’ve had with the National Park Services and how you ended up at Congaree? How does that lead into your appreciation for what happens there each year with the fireflies?

Jon Manchester: I’ve been here at Congaree just a little over 10 years. I came in 2013. I came here in a student position, and was able to convert that to a full-time permanent.

Last year I transitioned into the role of Chief of Visitor Services. I’ve gotten to experience the fireflies since it was really kind of a non-event, if you want to put it that way. It was kind of one of those things that locals knew about it but it wasn’t something that had been really widely shared. The park had known that there was something going on here since the eighties, but the staffing was so small, they had said, we cannot really advertise this to the public because it’ll just become unmanageable really fast. They were trying to make sure that it didn’t become such a crazy event that would push them past their capacity.

I’m not an entomologist. I don’t know everything about insects that there is to know, but I’m an inveterately curious person. I love to learn about stuff. My first spring here in 2014, I went and went to go see what the hubbub was about. And it was pretty fantastic. The word eventually got out. We don’t know who exactly was the first one to really say anything about it, but the Great Smokies began kind of sending people our way because they’ve had their Firefly event. It’s a lottery.

So they began telling people, ‘Hey, Congaree’s got some synchronized fireflies, and they don’t have any lottery or anything like that. You can go there.’ So it went from kind of a nothing event to we need to be doing something quick, because by 2016 it was crazy. I’ve kind of been part of the process of building the event from the bottom up to where we are today. It’s a really amazing thing to have seen where we were and where we are now, knowing that what we’re doing is seeking to make sure that this is a sustainable event. Something that not only do visitors enjoy it, but it’s not going to do so much damage to the resource that there won’t be synchronized fireflies for people to come to see 10, 20, 50 years down the road.

Congaree National Park Fireflies 2024
Congaree National Park Fireflies 2024

What Makes Congaree National Park special for Fireflies

Love Hiking News: I read that there’s only three spots where you can find synchronized fireflies. What is it about Congaree National Park that makes it a unique habitat for fireflies? Do you prefer to call them lightning bugs, firebugs or fireflies?

Jon Manchester: Fireflies is what we say, but you know what people call them is very much a regional thing. Lightning bugs is probably the other more common term you’ll hear for them. It’s probably a little more common than we necessarily think. It’s just that it’s not something that most people are gonna find in their backyards. What makes Congaree conducive to it, and a a couple other places like the Great Smokies, is that you’ve got exceptionally dark environments with very little light pollution. And so because fireflies are communicating through light, just a little bit of human created artificial light can really mess with their ability to communicate. We see that with just flashlights here. Just a flashlight popping on for a little bit can really mess with their ability to sync.

You’ll see them get all out of whack, and it takes a little bit for them to get them to get back into sink. It just has to take just a couple seconds. Doesn’t take much. We’re one of three species here in the United States that that can synchronize. So we’re a different species than what the Smoky has. So they have photinus carolinus and we have photuris frontalis. They don’t really have great common names like a bird, you know, northern Cardinals. But we do call the firefly here the snappy single sync, because that describes its flash pattern of about one flash every three quarters of a second. The species that we have here that synchronizes  here like the edges of  floodplains and hardwood swamps and more mature forests.

This species is typically seen kind of right along the edge of the floodplain. Where the (Harry Hampton) visitor center is a good spot to see them. There’s probably numerous locations in the park where they probably are, there’s no trails, the easy ways to get to them there. But the floodplains from where we are all the way up to essentially the outskirts of the city of Columbia, it’s fairly undeveloped. So there’s a good possibility. There are other spots out there where this is happening. It’s just privately owned land, so maybe the landowners know about it, but it’s not something that people are coming out to come and see. We have those nice dark conditions, we’re able to control that by turning off any lights we do have here and covering  any windows that could allow even a little bit of light out. That gives us the right conditions to help maintain what they need.

Congaree National Park Entrance Sign
Congaree National Park Entrance Sign

Where to see the Fireflies in Congaree National Park

Love Hiking News: Congaree National Park is a fairly small park relative to the others. Are the viewing areas for the event restricted to the Firefly trail? Can visitors access and see the fireflies in other parts of the park or are those pretty well restricted?

Jon Manchester: So the viewing area right outside the visitor center is where most people are going to go just ’cause it’s easily accessible. You got a lot of families coming out, they got kids, people can walk on the boardwalk and explore a little bit if they would like to. We do have set hours for this event, so at 10 o’clock we do close everything down for the night. We closed the gates so it, it does limit how far people can go. We don’t have lights along our trails, if you’re not familiar with the area and you’re not out there with a flashlight, it’s easy to get turned around if you go off the boardwalk. But people can go other places. There are a couple other spots not too far from the visitor center that are fairly good viewing. I think because that’s where park staff are Thunderstorms can pop up at any time here. So, people do want to be kind of close to potential shelter. They don’t wanna be, uh, away from where they might need to be to get to safety. The majority of people kind of stick around the visitor center, but we don’t tell people they can’t go anywhere else.

Camping and the Lottery during the Firefly Event

Managing the crows with the permitting process and the firefly lottery is one way to do it. What, what about campgrounds and people that are planning to be there anyway? Are the campgrounds still open during the event? Can people sleep in a tent overnight during the event?

So currently we have the campgrounds closed. There’s a couple reasons for that. The first is actually because we have a resource closure in place for the fireflies. It also allows us to do a little other resource management work especially in regards to the feral hog problem we have here. Unfortunately across the southeast feral hogs are well established and very, very prolific. They are a potential threat to the fireflies as well, because they do get up into the kind of that marginal bluff line. They’ll root around in there. And because firefly larvae and the adult fireflies are right there in that habitat, they are definitely in danger of being disturbed or potentially becoming just mixed in with the food of whatever the pigs are eating.

And because we’re doing that work with high powered rifles we wanna make sure there’s no chance of somebody getting hit by a bullet going somewhere that we didn’t expect it to go. Another reason why we’ve had to at least put a pause on it is that people were using that as a means to get around the lottery. We were noticing when we were doing the lottery and keeping the campgrounds open that somebody would get a reservation and then they’d have all their friends come. Anybody who gets a pass and is not camping they’re limited to how many people they can fit in their vehicle.

But we get somebody had a reservation from one of our individual sites, which can hold eight people max, but there were at least five cars coming in for that with the reservation confirmation on it, and it was more than eight people for that site. It’s possible that one day we will be able to get it back up and allow camping. We need to find a means to be able to regulate that and make sure that people aren’t trying to take advantage of it to get their friends in to come see the fireflies and then circumventing the lottery that everyone else is entered is following the rules on.

Congaree Firefly Interview with Jon Manchester, Chief of Visitor Services, continues with Part 2. (coming soon!)

Check the current weather and forecast for Congaree National Park.

Read the History of Congaree National Park

Previous story on the Congaree Firefly Viewing Permits

Love Hiking News is an integral part of Love Hiking Club, dedicated to delivering in-depth news and reports on National Parks. We focus on bringing the latest updates, fascinating stories, and insightful interviews from the heart of nature’s wonders.

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My name is Rich, and I love to hike!

I grew up in Idaho, with plenty of hiking and camping just minutes away from our home. Growing up, we spent summers at the lake and falls in the mountains. Camping and hiking with friends was such a special way to spend time together. I’ve spent a lifetime outdoors, hiking, camping, fishing and hunting.

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